Neck Pain and Headaches

Headaches have numerous causes and are often associated types of neck pain. These kinds of headaches are known as cervicogenic headaches and may involve both the muscles in the neck and the cervical spinal nerves. Meningitis is a serious condition which can cause both neck pain and headaches (along with fever) and should be ruled out if there is no obvious cause of the headache or associated neck pain (i.e. if not trauma has occurred to the neck).

Muscles Causing Neck Pain Headaches

Muscle problems can lead to referred headaches, particularly if the muscles involved are those extending from the jawline to the side of the head. These muscles are connected to the base of the skull and can be strained by poor posture, overuse, and acute or chronic stress. Usually a headache connected to muscle problems is also felt as pain, on movement, in the shoulder. If pressure is applied to the shoulder/neck area then the headache pain usually changes; the pain can be mild to severe, lasting hours or weeks.

Neck Muscles and Cervical Nerve Interaction

There are three main nerves, C1, C2, and C3, which go directly into the head from the cervical spinal region. These

nerves innervate (stimulate) the muscles near the skull at the top of the neck and can become cramped or irritated if these muscles become inflamed or tense. The muscles involved include the semispinalis capitus, the Longus Capitus, and the Rectus Capitus Lateralis which control the movement of the head backward, forward, and sideways respectively. The trigeminal nerve (C5) innervates the facial musculature and cranial nerve 2 controls sensation at the back of the head. These two nerves are located at the top of the neck, so any damage or trauma to this area can lead to pain which radiates from the bottom of the skull up to the top of the head and to the eyes and face.

Other muscles and nerves involved in neck motion are detailed in the section entitle Anatomy of the Neck. Problems with any of these nerves and muscles can lead to headaches and neck pain. Having a thorough understanding of the cause of the headache allows medical professionals to give better guidance as to correct treatment for the alleviation and prevention of the condition. Practitioners should conduct a thorough examination of the upper back, shoulders and cranial nerves in order to determine the site of the problem.

Exercise and posture correction can be especially useful for this kind of headache and neck pain as they can eliminate the cause of the muscle strain, correct, and strengthen those muscles and potentially prevent future incidences of the condition. Some people find chiropractic treatment, from a qualified professional, helpful in alleviating cervicogenic headaches.

Degenerative Problems

Structural problems involving the discs and vertebra can also cause pain to be referred, leading to headaches. Degenerative arthritic conditions of the neck are highly likely to cause these types of headaches. To be classed as a neck-related headache the condition must usually be precipitated by neck movement, prolonged awkward head position, or pressure on the neck or base of the skull. Other criteria included in the diagnosis for cervicogenic headaches developed by the Cervicogenic Headache International Study Group include restricted neck motion, shoulder, arm, and/or neck pain.


Neck-related headaches are often characterized by previous neck trauma, such as whiplash, headache on one side only with no change (although sometimes both sides are painful), pain at the skull-base, forehead, sides of the head or around the eyes which usually begins in the neck, and no sharp or throbbing pain on most occasions.

Other features of headaches related to neck pain include nausea, sensitivity to sound and light, dizziness, difficulty swallowing, blurred vision (often only on the side of the headache), watering eyes on the painful side, and occasionally vomiting if the pain is severe. Sometimes swelling is observed around the eye on the side of the head where the pain is felt.

Neck Pain Headache Prevention Tips

Simple things like holding an awkward position whilst talking on the phone, or having one shoulder strap longer than the other on a backpack can lead to neck pain, muscle strain and headaches. Being aware of posture and doing exercises to strengthen the core muscles (such as yoga, and pilates) can help prevent cervicogenic headaches. Having a good sleeping position is also important, as is ensuring use of a supportive (but not overly firm) pillow.